The Left Hand of Darkness

I have, of course, heard about this book by Ursula Le Guin – it’s up there as a seminal work, really, of early scifi especially. I think it counts as spec fic more than scifi per se, but that’s a bit beside the point. I bought it last weekend and read it over the week.

I have a friend who is a big scifi fan who read the Wizard of Earthsea series and was incredibly disappointed – actually, I think he only read the first one and didn’t bother with the others.  I may have mentioned this before; to me, Le Guin and some of those other early writers are doing line sketches, whereas a lot of the stuff coming out these days is oil colours – whether they’re consciously thinking about it or not, I think they’re heavily movie-influenced, and writing for a grander and more detailed vision than the earlier writers. Now, I’m perfectly ready to be wrong about that, but it sounds good.

The Left Hand of Darkness is named for a poem of the planet Gethen, where it’s set – light is the left hand of darkness, darkness the right hand of light. Very yin and yang, which is what the whole thing is about, really: the natives of Gethen are ambisexual, that is they are neither man nor woman, or perhaps both, for most of the month, and then come into ‘kemmer’ for a few days – their sex is then decided by the others around them who are also coming into kemmer.

This way of looking at gender was really interesting, but I’ve got to say I wasn’t entirely sure what Le Guin was aiming to do.  Her narrator for most of the book was male (from off-world), and he referred to all of the Gethenians as ‘he’. The only times they were described as female were almost derogatory or insulting, which I was really surprised and disappointed by. Now, maybe this is because they were a fairly non-aggressive race, so this was a male reaction to pacificism, but still, it was a bit uncomfortable to read.

Nonetheless, I actually did like the story. It was a poignant story, and she certainly doesn’t spare her characters. It hints at a much grander story – of the Ekumen, the not-governing body bringing 83 worlds together… the Hain, who seeded all of those world with humans… but the story itself, on Gethen, is also very personal and immediate. I think I liked it.

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